The characters are so well drawn:
The Reverend Boughton: a frail, patriarchal, prayerful old widower; devout, meaning to live and love like a Christian (though he shows no Christian concern for the black civil rights movement). Forgiving, of course, is not forgetting.
His daughter Glory: his 38 year old daughter and the youngest of his eight children, who, several months before the book opens, has come home - the old home which has never changed - to Gilead (Iowa) to look after him in his last days. Her life has been unfulfilled, and, though she loves him and does her best to see he is not upset, it is not fulfilled by her coming to look after him now.
His son Jack, a fascinating character: the black sheep ; had felt an outsider in the family ever since childhood; his delinquency impulsive rather than wicked; ever polite; as a child always ready to apologize for his misdeeds but always indulging in new ones; had fathered an illegitimate child; had then disappeared for twenty years, to the grief of his father who never failed to love him or to worry about his soul. Now the Prodigal Son suddenly returns, and the old father, always ready to forgive, shows more joy for the stray sheep that has returned than for the Martha-like devotion of his daughter. (The book abounds in biblical echoes.) He asks no questions of what Jack has been up to these twenty years (but imagines the worst), and Glory dares not ask either. And has he come back, battered by the storms of his life, to seek a refuge? Or out of nostalgia for the childhood home? Or trying to make reparation? Or out of concern for his old father? Or seeking forgiveness?
From childhood onwards Glory has always looked for Jack's approval. He had casually patted her on the head, no more. Now he is polite to her, but she feels no warmth; initially she resents the way he has `taken over the house', feels taken for granted by her father, her life more unfulfilled than ever. But then the relationship between her and Jack becomes deeper, more intimate, if edgy at first: both try elaborately not to touch on raw places, but both unintentionally (or with subconscious intention?) fail in this: even a smile or a pause are taken by the other as unspoken comments. But then slowly, slowly, the intimacy between brother and sister deepens, becomes warmer. Jack comes to trust her - not wholly, but more than he trusts anyone else; and she feels rewarded by that. They dare gradually to reveal to each other something of what they have suffered, of what they have done and of what they have had done to them. But there are still things neither of them will talk about, and the reader will only ever have intimations, but no precise details, about them.
Both Glory and her father are terrified - Glory at first as much on her father's behalf as on her own - that if they upset Jack, he will disappear again; and if he is out the house for a few hours, they begin to worry.
Jack, always doubting his welcome despite the reassurances from his father and his sister, knows that all their worries mean that they have never forgotten earlier escapades; and the people of Gilead don't seem to have forgotten either - especially not the Reverend Ames, the other old clergyman in the village, a friend of the Reverend Boughton and a sterner version of him.
As it is, Jack feels the shame of what he has done in the past, which all the forgiveness of his father and the assurances of his sister cannot remove - a shame which makes it so hard for him to stay in Gilead. In any case, the father's forgiveness is not as straightforward as it appears: it takes several forms: blaming himself for having in some way failed his son; clearly troubled in his soul about the sins that Jack might have committed during his long absence; praying for his salvation; in the end losing the strength to conceal his hurt - these are not so much balm as pain for Jack.
The whole book crackles with tension. Always one fears that something terrible will happen. It is full of grief and suffering, but also suffused with love and with loving concern; and it is profound, subtle, and infinitely moving.